An Elizabethan Blackwork Tutorial – Part Two: Stitching and Finishing Off

Hello again everyone!

After the first part of this tutorial and a little pile of coursework on my end it is now onto the second and final part. I was glad my last post was helpful to quite a few of you. I hope the second part will prove equally useful. :)

In Part One we talked about how to prep and trace your blackwork project. Now I will tell you a little about the basics of the double back-stitch, planning the stitching order of the embroidery pattern and finishing off the project. I hope it is okay I did not work with black thread but used my colourful Christmas leftovers instead. ;) Off we go:

The Double Back-Stitch

Although it is really pretty simple, the double back-stitch forms the heart of Elizabethan blackwork embroidery. It is a two-way stitch in a double sense: Firstly because it needs two trips along the same line, one forwards and one backwards, to be completed. Secondly, it “works both ways”, looking identical on the front and back of the fabric. Here is how you work it:

Insert your needle from the back of the fabric, leaving a tail of unknotted thread hanging out on the underside. You will use it to secure your stitching later.

The First Line

The First Line

Start the stitch by bringing up your needle from the back of the fabric, Working from left to right in a stabbing motion, make one stitch forward. You are now on the back of the fabric again. Here you make another stitch forward that is identical to the first in length, coming back up. Repeat this alternating stitching until your line is finished. This creates a dotted line, looking similar on the front and back of the fabric.

The Second Line

The Second Line

Now you have to go back, filling in the spaces. This works just the same as the first line of stitches, only into the opposite direction, from right to left. In my sample, the first line finishes on the front of the fabric (which it should not do). What you do now is to make a stitch to the back, filling in the blank.  On the backside, you take another stitch, just like before. It should come up again on the left of the visible stitch you made on the first go-round. From here you go back down, filling in the next blank.  Keep doing this until you have an unbroken line of stitches, front and back. Your last stitch should come out on the back of the fabric, next to where you started.

Finished Double Back-Stitch

Finished Double Back-Stitch

For a gapless line, you should work the second line by going into the same holes created by stitching the first line. However, this does not work for the very first stitch of the second line. Here you have to go in close to the last hole. Otherwise you would unpick the previous stitch. And that is your double back-stitch already. Easy, right? Now, to the slightly trickier part:

Planning the Pattern:
To cover the whole of your pattern with thread, you need to plan ahead when doing blackwork. To embroider all the little lines and corners without getting stuck somewhere in the pattern, unable to go back, you need to separate your pattern into different sections. There are a “main journey” and several “side trips” you finish off on the way. Sometimes this can be a bit like playing labyrinth games… But don’t fret, I will show you how it works:

The Main Journey

This line of stitching is your “lifeline” you use to “walk” into a section of the pattern and get back to the starting point, once this section is finished.

How to do that? Well, basically you only work the first line of stitches, as described above, until you reach an outlying section of the pattern. You then finish this section and “go back the way you came” afterwards, completing the second line of stitching on your main journey, until you reach the starting point. Once you reach it, you can embark on another main journey towards another end point of the pattern.

You can see what I mean in the two pics below. I basically finished one end of the leaf, leaving the main journey unfinished till then, so I can go back to my point of origin. With the acorn it is exactly the same.



Side and Round Trips

In the patterns you can see smaller lines and shapes branching off your main journey line. These are the so-called side trips. Sometimes I call them “round trips”, too, because it makes more sense.

These kinds of trips are little detours you take off the main journey. You finish them in one go. This means, you work the first-line of stitches, until you reach the end point of the side trip. There you reverse on the spot and go right back towards the main journey, finishing this side line as you go. Then you just move on with your main journey as described above.

In the picture below you can see my main journey in the center. The completed lines left and right of it are side trips I finished as I went by. Where my thread comes up is the end of the main journey. The tip of the leaf is what I would call a “round trip” as it will be worked in a circle, going one way and then right back to the main “lifeline”.

Main and Side Trips on the Leaf

Main and Side Trips on the Leaf

To make the whole planning process a bit clearer, here is a little example of how I have separated my two patterns into main and side trips. The main journey is red and the side trips are green:

Finishing Off

When you are done with your embroidery, you need to do two more things to finish off your project: neatening the loose thread ends at the back and removing your paper pattern.

Neatening Loose Ends:

Step One

Step One.

Thread the tails of thread hanging on the back of the fabric onto your needle.

Step Two.

Step Two.

Carefully weave the thread through the stitches on the back. Repeat with the other loose tail. Snip off the leftover thread.

And Finished.

And Finished.

Removing the Tissue Paper:

You will need:

  • Tweezers
  • A needle, pin or seam ripper (optional)
  • Some patience
Step One.

Step One.

Unpick the basting thread with your fingers or an aid of your choice.

Step Two.

Step Two.

Carefully tear off the tissue paper in smallish bits with your fingers. Use tweezers to wriggle free the tricky bits of paper in the centre. Caution: Try not to tug at your stitching as you do this! This takes some patience and practice, but you can do it. :)

All Done!

And All Done.

And, tadah, here is your finished piece of blackwork. Or red-and-gold work, in my case… ;)

I hope this tutorial was helpful to you all and will get you inspired for your own venture into historical embroidery.

Love, Nessa


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